Sign at the West Front Market in Skowhegan
Sign at the West Front Market in Skowhegan
Ah spring. Lockdown restrictions have been loosened, COVID vaccines are widely available and Mainers are ready to get back to their pre-pandemic lives and enjoy the summer. And if you listen closely you can hear the collective freak-out from the retail, food and hospitality industry as they realize their once-abundant pool of cheap labor has dried up.

All over social media, these employers have been lashing out and blaming their inability to attract workers on pandemic unemployment benefits. Even though the pandemic is still raging (I write this in my second week of quarantine after my family tested positive), business owners argue that the “Now Hiring” signs everywhere are an indication that everyone without a job should immediately run to the nearest eatery or retail establishment to snap up whatever part-time $13-an-hour job is available. Some have even injected political rants into their help wanted ads.

“We are short STAFFED! PLEASE be patient with the staff that did Show up! No one wants to work anymore,” fumed the West Front Market in Skowhegan. “Thank you to our State & Government They are KILLING our Economy! Everyone is hiring & Business [sic] are closing… And why???”

Below this epic tantrum, the owner briefly mentioned that she is hiring “night and weekend shifts,” but made no mention of wages. I was curious as to why no one wants to work the night shift in such a warm and friendly establishment, but the market didn’t even post a single ad on any of the major job postings sites. I mean, c’mon West Front Market, no one owes you employees. You’ve got to get off the couch, put on a nice shirt and at least try to recruit them. You might even try offering better wages!

While conservatives are constantly claiming that unemployment benefits are destroying the American work ethic, several studies have found that this is just a myth. Last year, when laid-off workers were receiving $600 on top of their weekly unemployment benefits, a rigorous Yale University study found that these workers “did not experience larger declines in employment” and that they “returned to their previous jobs over time at similar rates as others.” Now that this weekly enhanced benefit has been cut in half, it’s unlikely anything has changed. In fact, employment actually grew fastest in the lowest-wage industries in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell pointed out recently, if there truly were a tight labor market, wages would go up, but overall wage growth hasn’t even budged. What’s odd is that when the cost of oil goes up, businesses don’t claim there’s an oil shortage or call on the government to cut oil subsides. They pay the costs. But when it comes to wages, the business lobby clings to the illusion that service-sector jobs are “low-skilled” and therefore deserve to be paid poverty wages.

In recent months, the Chamber of Commerce, Retail Association of Maine, Hospitality Maine, National Federation of Independent Businesses and the Maine Tourism Association have been lobbying hard to lower the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour for young workers, eliminate municipal minimum wage and hazard pay ordinances and arbitrarily delay cost-of-living adjustments to the state minimum wage. But if Indeed postings are any indication, service-sector wages actually do seem to be rising somewhat as tourism businesses desperately try to find employees.

But the seasonal labor shortage is nothing new and prior to the pandemic several coastal businesses closed or reduced hours because not enough workers applied. With Maine’s median age at 45 and aging, this problem will only worsen if businesses don’t figure out a better way to recruit workers from out of state. Former State Economist Charlie Colgan said a decade ago that at some point the “quality of life premium” won’t be enough to attract workers to Maine as thousands of baby boomers retire from the workforce. If nothing is done, he said, Maine will lose 25,000 to 30,000 jobs by 2040. But living wages in the local service sector are rare.

According to MIT’s living wage calculator, a full-time living wage in Maine is about $15 per hour for a single person and over $30 per hour for a single parent of one. Two working adults with two children would each need to earn $21 per hour to make ends meet in Maine. With housing costs going through the roof and rental inventory at record lows, it’s hard to figure out how any working-class person can afford to live in the midcoast anymore, much less move here for service jobs that typically offer between $12 and $16 per hour. Unfortunately, the business lobby chooses to ignore these realities and instead focuses on ending benefits for the 4.8% of workers who are unemployed so they can create a desperate pool of cheap labor that can be easily exploited. But perhaps we should ask what the barriers to employment are for this 4.8%.

For the past year, I have been running an unemployment assistance group for the Maine AFL-CIO and from my conversations with job seekers it’s not as simple as just taking any seasonal/part-time/low-wage job available. The biggest challenge by far is the lack of child care available for working parents. Several parents tell me their children still have to do remote learning at home three days a week.

“What employer will work around that schedule?” one woman said. “I’ve applied and interviewed for so many jobs but there are a lot of people applying to the same jobs. If you’re going to pay $12 per hour you’ll probably have a hard time filling those jobs as it doesn’t pay the bills. The companies complaining need to take a look at what they pay, including the hours they offer, what kind of job they’re offering and how the managers treat workers.”

Another mom noted that too often the wages available aren’t enough to pay the astronomical cost of child care, which is estimated to be $5,000 per year for school-aged children and over $11,000 for infants.

“I have a young child whom I can’t put into a daycare and if I took one of those part-time jobs I would probably be making less than daycare costs,” she said.

That’s if you’re lucky enough to actually find child care. The Maine Children’s Alliance found that the pandemic dramatically worsened the child care shortage in Maine. The number of open child care centers in Maine plunged from 1,728 right before the pandemic to 1,349 in July of last year. To make matters worse, wages for child care workers are notoriously low, which makes it hard for those businesses to compete with other low-wage professions.

While unemployment benefits are higher than some low-wage jobs, many of our members are highly educated and are trained for professional fields, so they’re often told they are overqualified for low-wage jobs. Others are at high risk for COVID and don’t want to return to public-facing jobs until they are fully vaccinated. There are also many who have returned to the workforce but are now struggling and regret having taken jobs.

“I just accepted a job. I will be making $265 a week after taxes,” one worker told me. “This will put me over the threshold for partial unemployment by $22. Therefore I will be making $300 less per week and $1,200 less a month. I am trying to do the right thing by working, but I am now going into debt.”

Several older workers in their 50s and 60s have told me that they have applied for countless jobs, but suspect employers don’t want to hire them due to their age.

“Every job application that I have filled out for a professional position always has a section for education where you have to enter your date of graduation,” explained one. “The minute they see my date of graduation, they do the math and realize that I am over 60. That’s the end of it.”

But it is true that a lot of workers who were laid off from service jobs during the pandemic aren’t coming back. That’s because for the first time in their lives they don’t have to struggle and are relatively economically secure. They can finally take a breath and use this time on unemployment to go back to school or learn new skills.

“I haven’t had to struggle with my bills this year and it’s made me realize that even when I thought I was making a decent wage, I was actually getting screwed,” one laid-off restaurant worker told me. “I’ve been focused on completing my degree so I can hopefully find better employment.”

She’s certainly not alone. A recent survey by the advocacy group One Fair Wage found that 53% of restaurant workers have considered leaving their jobs during the pandemic, and 76% cite low wages and tips as the reason for leaving the industry.

If businesses really want to fill these jobs, they need to stop attacking unemployment programs and help solve the child care and housing crisis and pay competitive wages with the rest of the region. But if they don’t want to do it, workers might just take the power into their own hands and collectively demand it.